I’ve concluded that Norwegians are either the most intrepid adventurers in the world… or slightly mad. I’m leaning toward the latter. Whichever, Norway is home to some of the most intrepid people on the planet.
In the Kon Tiki Museum in Oslo, Norway, is the first piece of evidence for this. I’m surveying the original Kon Tiki. It’s a raft!
When is a boat not really a boat?
I recall seeing the Oscar-winning documentary about Thor Heyerdahl ‘s 1947 expedition and thinking this was a pretty daring, adventurous thing to do. Heyerdahl and five other, similarly eccentric Norwegians sailed across the Pacific, from Peru to the Tuamotu Islands on this raft. It’s made of balsa wood with nothing but a crude shelter. You couldn’t get me down a lazy river in this thing, let alone covering 8,000 km of ocean in it! But Heyerdahl wanted to prove that Polynesian islanders could indeed have crossed the ocean to settle in South America.
Not content with this insanity, Heyerdahl went on to build a papyrus boat (that’s the stuff used to make paper!) and christened it the Ra. This time he wanted to prove that Egyptians could have crossed to America.
The second of these expeditions, Ra II, did indeed make it from Africa to Barbados, across the Atlantic. More significantly, that expedition advanced our understanding about the oceans. Heyerdahl took samples of ocean pollution – including solidified lumps of oil – to the United Nations to express concern about how we are destroying this precious resource. What would Heyerdahl say about our recent disastrous oil spills?
It might be said that Heyerdahl was simply following in the footsteps of the first intrepid Norwegians; his ancestors were, after all, Vikings.
A short distance along the road from the Kon Tiki is the Viking Museum, testament to this more ancient group of Norwegian adventurers. Their ships, while somewhat more substantial than either of Heyerdahl’s craft, were nonetheless fairly flimsy by modern day standards. And if the Titanic could go down….
The first Europeans in North America
Yet these mariners made it all the way to North America, landing in what is now Newfoundland. All that remains at L’Anse aux Meadows today are some mounds (once their homes) and a few tools. Curiously, not even a single body appears to have been buried in America.
The Vikings apparently either burned their bodies in a vessel set out to sea or buried them with provisions for the afterlife. If they were wealthy, the afterlife was well supplied with tools, useful equipment such as sleds, and even a ship – all ornately carved and very beautiful. The Oslo museum has the contents of one such burial ground on display.
It’s rather awe-inspiring to stand on the platform above a real Viking ship and look into its hull. There is no shelter in bad weather and evidence indicates that part of the crew would bail while others rowed and handled the sails. The ships at the Viking Museum were buried along with the bodies of the Norse chieftains who probably once led expeditions across the seas.
It’s interesting to watch strapping young Norwegians with iPods in their ears, examining the relics of their own past. Would this generation be as intrepid – or mad? I suspect they would. In 2010, Heyerdahl’s grandson, Olav, sailed as a crewman on a boat whose buoyancy was provided by 12,500 plastic soft drink bottles! The Plastiki – named in homage to his grandfather – crossed the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco to Australia to highlight the dangers of plastic pollution.
The Uræd – a life-saving egg
But probably the most extraordinary example of Norwegian derring-do has to be that of the aptly-named Uræd (Fearless). In the winter of 1898 the steamer Athalie ran into a severe storm on its way to Newfoundland. A lifeboat was launched but an enormous wave caught the small wooden boat and crushed it against the hull of the ship. Then second mate, Ole Brude, was appalled. When the 22 year old returned to his home in Ålesund, he designed and constructed an enclosed lifeboat made of steel – shaped like an egg so that it could never sink or be crushed.
To prove his prototype was sea-worthy – it has to be admitted it looks anything but – Brude and three others sailed his egg to America. They were aiming for St. Louis and the World Fair, but ran aground in Gloucester, Mass. Imagine the commotion this peculiar looking vessel would have evoked in a small fishing community, especially when four men, neatly dressed in uniform, emerged from the interior!
Once more, one stands in awe of four audacious Norwegians crossing treacherous waters in what appears to be a very flimsy vessel. You can see the original Uræd in the Ålesund Museum, and even sit inside a mock-up of its interior. While it is undoubtedly cosy, to my mind, it would be akin to travelling across the ocean in one of those tilting pendulum rides at an amusement park – disorientating and significantly sick-making.
What makes Norwegians so fearless, especially when it comes to the sea? One could hazard a guess that one doesn’t fear the familiar, and this is a country in which the sea encroaches everywhere. Long fingers of ocean – the fjords – visit every nook and cranny of a land which essentially runs alongside the ocean. In such a landscape, travelling on water must be as natural as breathing air.
I admit to being a wimp on the water – not for me rafts made of wood or papyrus, or Viking boats requiring bailing. Fortunately for people like me, these days one can explore the coast of this beautiful country aboard a comfortable ship.
From Ole Brude’s home, the beautiful Art Nouveau city of Ålesund, the Hjørundfjord cruise takes one on a breathtaking, four-hour trip into the heart of Sunnmøre Alps. Majestic snow-capped mountains and quaint alpine villages make up the landscape.
This is only one of many fjord cruises, many aboard working ferry boats. My favourite took me into the Nærøyfjord, an arm of the Sognefjord – Norway’s longest and deepest fjord. This, along with Geirangerfjord, was included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, and with good reason. Every turn of the waterway brings into view more waterfalls, glaciers and spectacular scenery – so beautiful, I couldn’t tear myself away long enough to eat! We stopped to pick up mail and the occasional traveller from tiny villages clinging to the rocky mountainside – more evidence of the intrepidity of Norwegians.
Maybe I am a wimp, without a single daring bone in my body, but that’s the way I like to explore new landscapes. Not a bailing cup in sight!